Twenty One Years Old. Enjoying campus life with her friends. Working toward her degree …and her dreams…
Then, a soreness in her mouth… and a trip to the doctor.
“Squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue,” the doctor said.
She’d never heard of such a thing. What could have caused this? How did it happen? Where did it come from…??
When you’re young, with all your hopes and dreams ahead of you, you don’t have the life experience to cope with such a devastating blow. So it’s not really about coping…it’s about taking action.
The oncologist promised Nicole, a beautiful, intelligent college student, a full recovery but she would have to endure a horrifically aggressive treatment. There was nothing to do but just close her eyes and dive in.
For starters, she did some quick research. First step was a shocking surgery…removal of 75% of her tongue. Traumatic experience for anyone… But for a college kid? How could she ever feel normal again…?
She also learned that to truly eradicate this invader, she needed to add chemo to the radiation treatment. She wasn’t taking any chances.
Only two weeks to recover from a disfiguring surgery, then radiation and chemotherapy had to begin. A move with her mom into the Ronald McDonald House to be close to treatments, and another surgery to insert a feeding tube into her stomach. Terrible pain like she’d never known.
But it had to be done. The radiation treatments would destroy her ability to swallow, so they had to prepare for nutritional formula to feed her through the treatment process ahead. The pain was excruciating. But then chemo began.
Within 3 weeks, Nicole had lost her ability to swallow, and was hospitalized. She’d lost 35 lbs. of her 130 lb. frame. From the beginning, she had researched to understand the most thorough way to fight this rare cancer, in hopes that she could endure treatments and eventually be completely DONE with it all.
She kept her eye focused on the goal: to SURVIVE…and to get back to normal…and to her life.
After Traumatic Cancer Treatment You Can’t Go Back – Only Forward
When the treatment was finally completed, she was discharged and she moved home again. A 6-hour drive to get home, then a party with her friends that night to celebrate her return to her life.
Finally…it was OVER!!!
…or was it..??
Sometimes, you can be so strong and face the most terrible experiences, the worst life-threatening trauma, and pat yourself on the back for all you’ve endured. But then, out of nowhere, about the time you think you can relax and get back to your life, the other shoe drops.
Not with a thud…but with a crashing, devastating explosion…and ripples that affect every aspect of your life.
Severe Insomnia Sets the Stage for Worse Things to Come
First, came the insomnia. We’ve all heard about insomnia…when someone has trouble sleeping. But, have you ever gone for 5 or 6 days without sleep…? I mean NO SLEEP for day after day and night after night? Unless you’ve experienced this yourself, you can’t imagine what happens in your brain under this type of duress.
It’s used for torture in some third world prisons.
Then, let’s say you finally fall into a sleep but only sleep a couple hours…then it starts again. Day after day after day. You feel like you’ll go off the deep end.
The relentless stress builds and builds.
Tears Give Way to an Eating Disorder
One day, Nicole and her mom went to the mall to buy some clothes for Spring. They were excited about doing something fun and sort of “normal” again. But, when Nicole stepped out of the car, she broke into tears…and tears gave way to sobs. Hard sobbing without relief… She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t move.
All she could do was sob and sob, wondering even at the time what was happening to her. Eventually, her mom called her dad to come get them and take them home.
That day marked the beginning of 11 years of flashbacks, extreme reactions, embarrassing meltdowns, and crippled emotions. She thought the nightmare was over when she finished her treatments, but a new nightmare was just beginning…
Nicole started back to school in the fall, and everywhere she went people told her how great she looked. (She knew she didn’t look great. She was “scary” skinny…) But more and more she heard it all the time.
Were they just glad to see her back in school…? Or did they really think she looked better than she used to…? She decided to stay ultra thin, to make sure she kept looking “great.”
Before long, she was sneaking out of the house early in the morning to go to the gym, counting calories, and weighing four times a day. After feeling so profoundly out of control with the cancer, she’d found something she could control. And…she liked it.
Working out daily, walking when driving would be more convenient, cutting calories… and hardly sleeping. All of which continued until she graduated with her degree.
Happily, her boyfriend proposed the day of her graduation, and they moved from Pennsylvania to Virginia. She’d been given a clean bill of health by her doctor… she was cancer-free. It seemed everything was going to be ok.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Persists
But it turned out that the cancer was the easier foe to conquer. The fallout afterwards, which in time she was told was PTSD, was a much harder beast to vanquish.
A victim in a hospital scene on TV, the smell of an alcohol swab, or the mention of x-rays or medical procedures would make her freeze. Unable to breathe, choking in terrible panic, screaming for help, time and again… she felt like she was dying.
Her husband urged and even begged her to get help, but she refused. Going to the doctor — any doctor — might start the attacks. If she needed a chest x-ray, she just knew they’d find cancer. If her child needed to see the doctor, it was terrifying for her. Any buzzing noise took her back to that radiation machine years before. A routine scab on her husband’s ear, a swollen lymph node in her daughter’s throat, a sore finger…anything…. would trigger the panic attacks and the fear that she or her loved ones would have cancer and die.
Over the years, she and her husband brought 4 beautiful little girls into the world, two of which were twins. But the routine joys of pediatrician visits as children grow became the war zone for her flashbacks and terrors…
Until she sought treatment… and her life finally began to change.
But let’s get back to that in a bit. First, what is PTSD, and what can you do about it..?
What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
PTSD sometimes follows a traumatic or life-threatening event, with symptoms typically appearing in the first 3 months after it happened. However, in some cases symptoms may not show up for much longer…even years.
Your symptoms may be repeated, involuntary memories, flashbacks of the event that seem as real as the original incident did, efforts to avoid being reminded of the trauma, feeling detached or estranged from others, in addition to angry outbursts, irritability, and ongoing fear, terror, and shame. You can also become emotionally numb.
In Nicole’s case, she was able to finish her Bachelor’s degree, work at her job, and parent her little girls. But, functioning was really tough for her. In your case, you might be unable to function much at all.
For some people, the symptoms can subside over time, but in others, they can go on for years, or even a lifetime without treatment. The severe distress that’s caused by the horrific trauma may need psychiatric treatment.
Sometimes medicine and therapy help. But for some, it just doesn’t.
Nicole is doing better and better now. In hindsight, she wishes she had sought help sooner. She wishes anyone with these symptoms would go for help as quickly as they can.
But, since the treatment she needed required that she see a psychiatrist, and the thought of seeing a doctor triggered more panic attacks, it was really tough to cross that threshold.
At Innovative Psychiatry, Ketamine Treatment Gives Hope
At Innovative Psychiatry, we specialize in treatment-resistant psychiatric disorders. That means we specialize in helping people get better who didn’t get better with other medicines and treatments before.
We’ve had extraordinary results treating these special patients with ketamine treatment. Ketamine treatment has a way of rebuilding signaling systems in the brain that have been broken down by stress, anxiety, and depression.
When administered expertly, ketamine is even more effective than many people realize in treating depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, social anxiety, panic disorder, eating disorders, and suicidal thinking.
By rebuilding broken down synapse connections between the brain cells, enhancing signal transmission from the prefrontal cortex to deep in the brain, and proliferating the structures that provide those pathways, ketamine produces rapid and widespread improvement to the point that many patients declare themselves “well.”
June is National PTSD Month, and this month we want to show some of the types of PTSD, and help get the word out that there is effective and lasting treatment. And that you can have your life back again.
You can enjoy your job again, build your relationships with spouse, family, and friends again. Catch up on neglected projects and enjoy them. Get out and about and relish your days.
If you’re suffering, and nothing has helped, call us. Helping relieve stubborn psychiatric disorders is where we find our deepest fulfillment. We want to see you well. You’re not alone.
To the revitalizing of your best self,
Lori Calabrese, MD